INDIA: Rabindranath Tagore was a poet of par excellence, musician of tres bon, novelist of les encours, polymath, and artist who recast music, Bengali literature, and Indian art in the late 19th and early 20th century. In 1913, Rabindranath Tagore was the first non-European to win Nobel Prize in Literature. As today we are celebrating his 160th birthday in such a tumultuous time of the pandemic, it will be a soul searching for us to revisit his life and works.
Rabindranath Tagore was born on May 7, 1861, to Debendranath Tagore and Sarada Devi in Jorasanko, Thakur House, Kolkata, West Bengal, India. He was the youngest son among the thirteen children. Tagore’s mother Sarada Devi died when he was a child. His father was an extensive traveler and hence, Tagore was raised by his servants. Dwijendranath, Tagore’s oldest brother, was a philosopher and poet. Tagore’s other brother Satyendranath was the first Indian to be appointed in the Indian Civil Service. His brother, Jyotirindranath, was a musician, composer, and playwright while his sister Swarnakumari was a novelist.
From his early age of schooling, he was averse to school room education. He usually called this schooling ‘parrot-teaching’. He recalled in his ‘Reminiscences’, “My crying drove me prematurely into the Oriental Seminary. What I learnt there I have no idea, but one of its methods of punishment I still bear in mind. The boy who was unable to repeat his lessons was made to stand on a bench with arms extended, and on his upturned palms were piled a number of slates. It is for psychologists to debate how far this method is likely to conduce to a better grasp of things.”
But he was also a child prodigy as he started penning down poems at the age of 8. He also started composing artworks at a tender age and by the age of sixteen, he had started publishing poems under the pseudonym Bhanusimha. He also wrote the short story, ‘Bhikharini’ in 1877 and the poem collection, ‘Sandhya Sangit’ in 1882.
He drew inspiration by reading the classical poetry of Kalidasa and started coming up with classical poems of his own. He was under the deep impression of classical texts of ‘Ramayana’ and ‘Mahabharata’.
He was sent to England in the year 1878 as his father wanted him to become a barrister. Tagore had always despised formal education and thus showed no interest in learning from his school. He was later on enrolled at the University College in London, where he was asked to learn the law. But he once again dropped out and learned several works of Shakespeare on his own. After learning the essence of English, Irish and Scottish literature and music, he returned to India
In 1891, Tagore went to East Bengal (now in Bangladesh) to manage his family’s estates at Shilaidah and Shazadpur for ten years. There he often stayed in a houseboat on the Padma River, the main tributary to the Ganges River. He came in close contact with villages and their lives, and his sympathy for them became the keynote of much of his later writing. Most of his finest short stories, which examine “ pure and humble lives and their small miseries,” date from the 1890s and have a poignancy, laced with gentle irony, that is unique to him. Great director Satyajit Ray, in his later film adaptations, admirably captured these countryside pictures.
Tagore came to love the Bengali countryside, most of all the Padma River, an often-repeated image in his verse. During these years he published several poetry collections like Sonar Tari (The Golden Boat), and plays, notably Chitrangada (Chitra). Tagore’s poems are virtually untranslatable to other languages by keeping the same spirit, as are his more than 2,000 songs,(Robindro Sangeet) which achieved considerable popularity among all classes of Bengali society.
Tagore introduced new prose and verse forms and the use of colloquial language into Bengali literature, thereby freeing it from traditional models based on classical Sanskrit. He was highly influential in introducing the best of Indian culture to the West and vice versa, and he is generally regarded as the outstanding creative artist of modern South Asia.
Shantiniketan and Geetanjali
In 1901 Tagore founded an empirical school in rural West Bengal at Shantiniketan (“Abode of Peace”), a place he visited with his father at a young age. Here he sought to blend the best in the Indian and Western traditions. He settled permanently at the school, which became Visva-Bharati University in 1921. Famous personalities from this university are the former prime minister of India, late Indira Gandhi, great film director Satyajit Ray, and Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen to name a few.
Years of sadness arising from the deaths of his wife and two children between 1902 and 1907 are reflected in his later poetry, which was introduced to the West in Gitanjali (Song Offerings) (1912). He himself translated the poem into the English language. This book, containing Tagore’s English prose translations of religious poems from several of his Bengali verse collections, including Gitanjali (1910), was hailed by W.B. Yeats and André Gide and won him the Nobel Prize in 1913.
Yeats in his introductory note said, “A few days ago I said to a distinguished Bengali doctor of medicine, “I know no German, yet if a translation of a German poet had moved me, I would go to the British Museum and find books in English that would tell me something of his life, and of the history of his thought. But though these prose translations from Rabindranath Tagore have stirred my blood as nothing has for years, I shall not know anything of his life, and of the movements of thought that have made them possible, if some Indian traveler will not tell me.” Nobel prize committee noted,”because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West.”
Tagore was also awarded a knighthood in 1915, but he repudiated it in 1919 as a protest against the Amritsar’s Jallianwalla Bagh Massacre.
Apart from Jana Gana Mana (the National Anthem of India), his composition ‘Amar Shonar Bangla’ was adopted as the National Anthem of Bangladesh and the National Anthem of Sri Lanka was inspired by one of his works.
He died at the ripe age of 80 years on August 7, 1941. One of his songs is very much relevant today –
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high,
Where knowledge is free.
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments,
By narrow domestic walls.
Where words come out from the depth of truth,
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection.
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way,
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit.
Where the mind is led forward by thee,
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.